On Reconciling The Binary with Fighting The Patriarchy

We have lots of very feminist discussions in my household. We routinely analyze the systems of oppression underlying events and discuss critically what being an ally means in different situations. We use words like cispatriarchy*. Intersectionalism gets invoked frequently as a concept not only by me, but by also Teri (who really only understood that he was a feminist relatively recently, back when he came with me to V to Shining V). Last weekend, a bunch of trans guys came over, and along with my own Teri, they had an excellent dialog about what manhood means. They let me listen, and occasionally add a feminist perspective. And we laugh and cheer when there’s a character in a movie named after Shulamith Firestone**.

Seriously, you guys, this movie is SO good.

Seriously, you guys, this movie is SO good.

Okay, so that’s all good, right? And I stand in solidarity with other women. I try to stamp out sexism in the workplace and teach my people to recognize discrimination. I support reproductive freedom. I support pro-woman policies. I’ve supported numerous women in office or running for office, and advocate for the unique contributions women make to leadership. I didn’t back down from my work leadership roles as a woman and even doubled down, taking on this new mission that may yet be the death of me. I don’t just call myself a feminist – but in the language of my analysis of oppression, I function as a feminist, and I am a feminist, because I clearly act to undermine the system of marginalization that keeps us ladies down.

So why, ahem, do I have this guilty obsession with Blurred Lines*** whenever it comes on the radio (it’s not because it’s a “feminist movement“)? And why did Hot in Herre make me actually want to take my clothes off? (Nowadays, reader, this video is why, but I just saw Austenland a few months ago, and so previously, this could not have been the explanation.)

Why, the more masculine Teri’s role became in our relationship, did I suddenly feel not quite right sitting at the head of my own table and felt better with Teri sitting at the head of my table and me at his side (okay, erm, I actually did this)? Why do I find myself wanting to defer to him, or serve things to him? Why do I seem to, here and there, quite like a little misogyny or chauvinism in my life? I know, too, that I’m not the only one. Just what in the name of Simone de Beauvoir is going on here?

Recently, Teri and I have been having something of an 11-month itch. Rounding on a year together (our anniversary is January 18), we’ve been fighting a little bit about our models of responsibilities. This started, apropos of my Mira Goes Het and Teri’s Real Men Wanted piece, with the situation that preceded the jam session with the trans guys, about Teri’s “breadwinner” comment. Even after the jam session, and our blog posts, I stewed about this for some time before finally admitting to Teri that this comment had made the short list of times when I felt most disrespected in our relationship. Not only did I not have the choice to assume the role of primary financial agency in our relationship, but this was explicitly something I did not really want, and had not been looking for. With that being said, I felt the comment had failed to recognize not only the home and parties and tickets to galas and other middle-class luxuries I provide, but also that I do the laundry, vacuum, grocery shop, make Teri at least one, if not two fresh/hot meals every day (and sometimes pack him a lunch), all while trying to be pretty for him and satisfy him and … Yeah. Way, way het. On the one hand, it placed me in a narrative in which many other modern career women find themselves, also****. But on the other, and this part is harsh to admit – the thing that Teri can do (and has offered to / is starting to do), which is take on more of the chores around the house, is not what I actually want (it is what I am supposed to want). It’s true, what I said before, I do want to be out changing the world. But, the truth is that I do find myself wishing I were not financially responsible for us in the all-encompassing way I am now, and I find I quite like domesticity, and I keep finding myself on the verge of telling Teri to man up, which I said I would not do, and then feeling ashamed about the sentiment. If Teri is going to do more chores, this part of me is saying, “At least go take care of the driveway/yard … it’s a treat when you cook for me once in a while, but I like cooking for you. I like wearing pretty things for you.” And other, sundry, seemingly thoughts unbecoming a feminist.

We got to talking about this a day or two ago, and I pointed out something to Teri that surprised him (and which surprised me, a long time ago, but which had long since been assimilated into how I see the world). It also explains a little bit of our dilemma. Studies have shown in different ways that equality of chores and domestic labor lessens, not increases marital sexual satisfaction. It actually leads to less sex. Other converging lines of evidence paint a potentially scary picture. Heterosexual relationships are much more able to tolerate the combination of a less pretty man and a more pretty woman, than the reverse. High status professional straight women (many/most of whom are feminist in their mentality) tend to seek even higher status professional men as mates. All of this converging evidence, in essence, says that there is at least some success/selection of relationships based on their compatibility with the binary*****.

As always, I part ways with some ideas in my sisterhood. Many feminists still argue for the idea that gender****** is pure or mostly social construct. As a scientist, like Julia Serrano (Serrano is a biochemist, and I am a neuropsychologist), I find this untenable to the point that having this argument is not even constructive. There is too much contradicting evidence for there to be any sense in a social constructivist view of gender. This isn’t an argument for genetic determinism. Rather, the only sensible view is an epigenetic one, in which most factors are driven by genetics, and biology generally, with varying response to environmental moderating factors. This grey scale is the only real option. Queer people are also taken with very black and white statements, like the statement that gender identity and sexual orientation are (completely) unrelated. Again, it is very difficult to even coerce the data to make this statement sensible. It is not a coincidence that most people are cisgender or that most people are heterosexual, and that the “rules” bend far enough to allow me to exist does not, in itself, invalidate these moderately to very strong associations. It is not a coincidence that most feminine people are women and most masculine people are men. These concepts are related by correlation of more modest strength. You cannot use someone’s gender to predict with certainty their sexual orientation (although, from a scientific standpoint, you can make a much better guess than if you didn’t have their gender available). This doesn’t mean people should be cisgender, heterosexual, feminine women, masculine men, etc. It doesn’t mean that we should go back to making bad assumptions about people. It just means that our coding (in the range of environments we experience) strongly selects for these combinations.

Like all of this, the binary is probably, itself, not a coincidence, either. It is certainly possible that, to some extent, the findings like the finding that men who do more chores have less sex, may be a symptom of the patriarchy, instead. So, just like LGBT people experience mental illness 2.5x as often as straight people, but it’s because of society’s marginalization of us and not anything wrong with us, these men are ostensibly having (“getting” is the term society would use) less sex not because of their egalitarian nature, itself, but because this nature bucks society’s expectations. There is probably something to this. But it seems hard entirely to ignore the fact that in-binary behaviors are associated with more sex (for binary people in binary relations, she bends over backwards to minimize the offense this whole line of reasoning will undoubtedly cause… to everybody).

It is also much more likely that, although the binary is not (and should not be) for everyone, the binary is likely to continue, for a long, long time, to be the thing, for most people, in some form or other, and that the binary cannot simply be “shattered” by the emergence of non-binary people or relationships. Without any intention to define or question the identities of non-binary people, then, for those of us in the binary, it is imperative that we understand how this thing works, because, again, from the perspective that few of these things are likely to be pure social constructs, and many of these things are likely to be biology-environment interactions of some kind, the binary is likely to be a thing that is malleable in some places and firm in others – meaning that some things about the binary are relatively easy to change, and changing them may result relatively readily in making us happier, whereas changing other things about the binary, or changing the binary in other ways, may really go “against our nature,” and make us miserable. This is backed up by looking at large scale experiments that tried to substantially de-gender societies, like the early kibbutzim. Experiment is relevant, whereas societies with an array of gender norms, which evolved spontaneously over millennia and survived, are relatively more likely to have found a way to “roll with the punches” and re-craft the binary, these attempts to substantially change the binary, far from the existing binary, and not informed by an understanding, really, of what the binary is or how it works, fail. This isn’t a cop-out. All the things that survived over the generations, including, but not limited to, LGBT people happily living their lives when no one is trying to kill or marginalize us, again, are variations we seem to be able to tolerate. What I want to do is not apologize for the binary, but understand how it can be changed so that it can be healthier, because I don’t think it can be shattered, and I’m interested in making a better option for people inside the binary, not just increasing awareness of “options” outside of the binary (which are probably not “options” in the sense of political lesbianism, for most people, anyways).

That’s because part of what is going on in our relationship, that’s complex and problematic and I don’t know what to do about it, is that I feel my femininity, in my very binary nature, wanting masculinity out of Teri. Which I have no particular right to ask for. And besides it not being right to Teri, I should not be mindlessly endorsing the binary (even if I do find that bass line in that song catchy, that song is still rapey). And even if I think the binary is highly selected for by the way we’re all wired, it scares me. It’s easy for me to say, “Women don’t get hit” but I don’t think men should get hit, either. I don’t just want women to be safe from guns – I want men to be safe, too. I don’t think “boys will be boys,” I think that shortchanges them, even if I don’t really know what being a boy is like, exactly. So, the binary is alluring to me, but also I don’t honestly know how to make the binary “safe, sane, and consensual*******”.   And certainly, the binary ebbs and flows. It seems worryingly pronounced right now, for instance in the degree or extent of gratuitous use of female sexual images for every kind of purpose. And femininity must never be an apologist for the worst excesses carried out under the banner of masculinity, as in Forster’s excellent Passage to India, where he attributes to this vicious cycle between masculinity and femininity the death of the ability to collaborate and grow with each other of British and Indian men: “They had started speaking of ‘women and children’ – that phrase that exempts the male from sanity when it has been repeated a few times.”

I avoided this book for the longest time, because I didn't know how it ended, and I didn't understand the point Forster was making, until I got all the way to the end.

I avoided this book for the longest time, because I didn’t know how it ended, and I didn’t understand the point Forster was making, until I got all the way to the end.

At the same time, Teri’s quest, and those of the other trans guys, to either infiltrate and redefine manhood, or replace it with some other good identity construct, is something, then, that I do, after all, have this binary stake in (because binary women have a stake in binary manhood). And although there are good men all around, engaging in this same discussion, I think queer men (or guys) like Teri, particularly, have something really unique and valuable to contribute, and hopefully queer women (like me) stand to gain, in this case, quite directly, from Teri’s findings. Again, we use too many ultimatums and too much hyperbole, but I guess I’m saying that I need a good man way more than a fish needs a bicycle.

* Okay, and then we Google them to make sure we know what they mean.

** If I could’ve had more names, I would’ve snuck “Shulie” in there somewhere, for serious.

*** It’s because of that descending bass line before the chorus, and how they sing “You Know You Want It” an octave down. It’s potent!

**** This in itself, cognitive schema be damned, makes this whole business more palatable than any sort of thought of being stuck in any kind of “man of the house” role.

***** By the binary, I mean the traditional “complementary” relationship between… male and female, masculine and feminine, butch and femme, man and woman, etc. Without arguing that all these things are the same, because they are not, the binary is the dualistic quality that these relationships, as typically appreciated by society (and in the case of the butch/femme relationship, by queer society), have in common. As an aside to an aside, as far as the butch/femme concept goes, we all hate the question, “Which one of you is the guy,” but we don’t want to discuss the fact that, given the sufficiently robust grounding in gender and feminism that we have (but the people asking these questions typically do not), it’s a less ridiculous question than we make it out to be.

****** Another fight, that I’m not going to pick today, is that the idea that “sex is biology and gender is expression,” or similar ideas, as if these terms could be analogous to mood and affect, is also not workable. I take, and at some point, will defend, the notion that there is no meaningful or non-arbitrary way in which sex and gender can be understood as discrete and unrelated constructs.

******* Unless you’re really feminist, you’re probably not going to really get this analogy, but many feminists wrote about reading The Story of O, and most of them had the same response I did… they thought it was insanely hot… until it wasn’t anymore. And then it became quite the turn-off. Although we try to be sex-positive, and we accept people who like kink, we end up finding sadism is not a neutral / amoral construct, but it is an altogether bad / evil thing, and masochism, while alluring, lives in a binary, mutually reinforcing system with sadism (acting as its accomplice). Thus, while masochism is alluring, it too, is immoral, for the reason that it perpetuates the horror that is sadism. In the same way, femininity cannot, must not, be the immorality that perpetuates barbarisms committed under the flag of “masculinity.”

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4 thoughts on “On Reconciling The Binary with Fighting The Patriarchy

  1. Pingback: On Being a Man and a Feminist – Uncloseted

  2. Pingback: The Hidden Danger to the Sisterhood of Hierarchical Assumptions | Mira Charlotte Krishnan

  3. Pingback: In Search of Sexually Empowering Feminism | Mira Charlotte Krishnan

  4. Pingback: Changing the Conversation: Re-Defining LGBT Community Values | Mira Charlotte Krishnan

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